The Cremation of Sam McGee
The Cremation of Sam McGee
Robert W. Service 1907
Service wrote “The Cremation of Sam McGee” while working as a bank teller in the Yukon Territory several years after the gold rush of 1898. In addition to his writing, Service entertained by reciting the works of Rudyard Kipling, Ernest Lawrence Thayer (“Casey at the Bat”), as well as his own rhymes and ballads. He refused to call his writing “poetry” for fear people would think his pieces were too intellectual and they would not buy his books.
Along with “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and other poems for the book Songs of a Sourdough, “The Cremation of Sam McGee” exhibits the elements that mark Service’s style: internal rhymes, stressed rhythms, a dash of stereotypical Yukon machismo (“manliness”), ironic and slightly macabre humor, and a smattering of Klondike slang and jargon.
The poem tells a story of Cap (the speaker of the poem) and his mushing companion, Sam McGee. On a bitter cold Christmas Day, Sam exacts a promise from Cap: to cremate his remains when he dies. Cap finds Sam dead by nightfall the next day. Wanting to honor his friend’s final request, Cap hauls the frozen body of Sam McGee across the frozen land. When they arrive at the shores of Lake LaBarge, Cap spies an abandoned ship jammed in the ice. After making his way to the ship, Cap uses planks and coal remnants to build a fire in the ship’s boiler. Into this blaze Cap stuffs the body of Sam McGee. When Cap returns later to the ship, he opens the furnace door to find Sam
McGee sitting up and smiling. Sam tells Cap to shut the door so as not to let in the cold.
Robert William Service was born on January 16, 1874, in Preston, Lancashire, England, to Robert and Emily (Parker) Service. When Emily’s father died and left a bequest of ten thousand pounds, the family moved to Glasgow, Scotland. The oldest of ten children (Service had six brothers and three sisters), Service was sent to live with three maiden aunts and his paternal grandfather. He returned home at age eleven and was enrolled in the Hill-head School. Expelled three years later for defying the drillmaster, Service was apprenticed at age fifteen to a branch of the Commercial Bank of Scotland, where he stayed until 1896.
Service resigned from the bank at the end of March, 1896, to emigrate to North America. He crossed the Atlantic as a steerage passenger to Montreal, took a “colonist” train to Canada’s west coast, and ended up as a farm laborer on Vancouver Island. A little more than eighteen months later, he headed for California. In his autobiography, Service claims to have worked as a tunnel builder in Oakland, a handyman in a San Diego brothel, and a guitar-playing singer in Colorado. Whatever the actual truth to those claims might be, by 1899 Service was again working on a Vancouver Island ranch. In October of 1903, Service returned to the banking industry with the Canadian Bank of Commerce in Victoria, British Columbia. In 1904 he was transferred to Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, and, at the end of the summer of 1906 he became the branch’s teller.
Service was never a miner. Rather, he learned of the 1898 Gold Rush through conversations with old-timers and the research of old records. His volume of poetry about life in the northern wilderness, Songs of a Sourdough (1907), quickly went through fifteen printings, and Service was earning royalties of several thousand dollars a year while still working as a bank teller in Dawson, even farther north in the Yukon Territory.
In 1910, Service made his way to Toronto and New York to arrange for the publication of his novel, The Trail of ‘98. On his return trip Service visited his family, who had settled in northern Alberta, then set out alone on a perilous journey of more than two thousand miles to Dawson by canoe through wilderness waterways. His experiences, real or imagined, provided material for the best chapters of his autobiography and inspired the Mackenzie River ballads of Rhymes of a Rolling Stone (1912). Service planned to follow in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and travel to Tahiti in 1912, but the editor of the Toronto Star hired him as a foreign correspondent, and Service left the Yukon, never to return.
In 1913, Service arrived in Paris. He married Germaine Bourgoin on June 12, 1913. Denied admission to the armed forces because of varicose veins, Service assumed the role of war correspondent for the Toronto Star. Service joined an American-organized ambulance corps in Paris, and from these experiences came Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916). For nine months the book topped the best-seller lists in the United States.
From 1919 to 1929, Service and his wife lived in Paris, where their only child, a daughter named Iris, was born. During this time Service became interested in film. Cinematic adaptations of some of his poems received mixed reviews. By 1931, the family had moved to Nice, France. The American edition of The Complete Poems in 1933 reconfirmed Service’s reputation, although many people in North America assumed Service was already dead. In 1940, Service and his family returned to Canada, but they soon moved to Hollywood to be close to the film industry. Service and his family returned to Europe in 1946 and took up residence in Monte Carlo. Service continued to publish and remain active until his death from a heart attack on September 11, 1958. He is buried in the Brittany region of France.
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, 5
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
Now Sam McGee was from Tennessee, where
the cotton blooms and blows.
Why he left his home in the South to roam 10
’round the Pole, God only knows.
He was always cold, but the land of gold seemed
to hold him like a spell;
Though he’d often say in his homely way that
he’d “sooner live in hell.”
On a Christmas Day we were mushing our way
over the Dawson trail.
Talk of your cold! through the parka’s fold it
stabbed like a driven nail.
If our eyes we’d close, then the lashes froze till 15
sometimes we couldn’t see;
It wasn’t much fun, but the only one to whimper
was Sam McGee.
And that very night, as we lay packed tight in
our robes beneath the snow,
And the dogs were fed, and the stars o’erhead
were dancing heel and toe,
He turned to me, and “Cap,” says he, “I’ll cash
in this trip, I guess;
And if I do, I’m asking that you won’t refuse my 20
Well, he seemed so low that I couldn’t say no;
then he says with a sort of moan:
“It’s the cursèd cold, and it’s got right hold till
I’m chilled clean through to the bone.
Yet ’tain’t being dead — it’s my awful dread of
the icy grave that pains;
So I want you to swear that, foul or fair, you’ll
cremate my last remains.”
A pal’s last need is a thing to heed, so I swore 25
I would not fail;
And we started on at the streak of dawn; but
God! he looked ghastly pale.
He crouched on the sleigh, and he raved all day
of his home in Tennessee;
And before nightfall a corpse was all that was
left of Sam McGee.
There wasn’t a breath in that land of death, and
I hurried, horror-driven,
With a corpse half hid that I couldn’t get rid, 30
because of a promise given;
It was lashed to the sleigh, and it seemed to say:
“You may tax your brawn and brains,
But you promised true, and it’s up to you to
cremate those last remains.”
Now a promise made is a debt unpaid, and the
trail has its own stern code.
In the days to come, though my lips were dumb,
in my heart how I cursed that load.
In the long, long night, by the lone firelight, 35
while the huskies, round in a ring,
Howled out their woes to the homeless snows
—O God! how I loathed the thing.
And every day that quiet clay seemed to heavy
and heavier grow;
And on I went, though the dogs were spent and
the grub was getting low;
The trail was bad, and I felt half mad, but I
swore I would not give in;
And I’d often sing to the hateful thing, and it 40
hearkened with a grin.
Till I came to the marge of Lake Lebarge, and
a derelict there lay;
It was jammed in the ice, but I saw in a trice it
was called the “Alice May.”
And I looked at it, and I thought a bit, and
I looked at my frozen chum;
Then “Here,” said I, with a sudden cry, “is
Some planks I tore from the cabin floor, and I 45
lit the boiler fire;
Some coal I found that was lying around, and I
heaped the fuel higher;
The flames just soared, and the furnace roared
—such a blaze you seldom see;
And I burrowed a hole in the glowing coal, and
I stuffed in Sam McGee.
Then I made a hike, for I didn’t like to hear him
And the heavens scowled, and the huskies 50
howled, and the wind began to blow.
It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled down my
cheeks, and I don’t know why;
And the greasy smoke in an inky cloak went
streaking down the sky.
I do not know how long in the snow I wrestled
with grisly fear;
But the stars came out and they danced about
ere again I ventured near;
I was sick with dread, but I bravely said: “I’ll 55
just take a peep inside.
I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked”; …
then the door I opened wide.
And there sat Sam, looking cool and calm, in the
heart of the furnace roar;
And he wore a smile you could see a mile, and
he said: “Please close that door.
It’s fine in here, but I greatly fear you’ll let in
the cold and storm —
Since I left Plumtree, down in Tennessee, it’s 60
the first time I’ve been warm.”
There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights, 65
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.
In this opening stanza, Service sets a mood of mystery and suspense. By using words like strange, midnight, and secret, and phrases like “make your blood run cold,” “queer sights,” and “the queerest I ever did see,” the reader anticipates that something unnerving will occur. The final line of the stanza (“I cremated Sam McGee.”) suggests a violent end to Sam McGee and the involvement of the speaker in that death. Even before Service uses the word “cold,” he chills the reader by introducing the “midnight sun,” “the Arctic trails,” and “the Northern Lights.” The inclusion of icy Lake LaBarge reinforces the feeling of coldness.
Service introduces Sam McGee. Hailing from the warm South, Sam is always cold in the Yukon. There appears to be some confusion as to why Sam left his warm Southern home. He says “he’d ‘sooner live in hell’,” but this land of gold holds him “like a spell.” Interestingly, it is “the land of gold,” not the gold itself, that has this strange hold on Sam McGee. The Christmas Day trip over the Dawson trail begins the action of the poem in a bitter, menacing cold. The speaker describes the cold in stark, uncompromising terms—it “stabbed like a driven nail” and froze eyelashes shut. “It wasn’t much fun,” adds the speaker, and the other mush-ers recognize the hazards of this way of life. They don’t complain, but Sam not only complains, he “whimpers.”
- A 12-minute short film, directed by Bob Jacobs, was released in 1982 by The Film Farm and distributed by EBE.
- A website featuring the work of Tom Byrne, an actor who has performed the works of Robert W. Service for more than 20 years, can be found at http://www.interchange.ubc.ca/service/index.htm. The site features CDs, audiocassettes, videos, and show bookings.
- At www.rwservice.com, Les McLaughlin, Tracey Brown and Randall Prescott have produced a CD of Service’s work set to music. Sound clips are available at the website.
- Blue Frog Records, which can be found at www.bluefrogmusic.com, presents an album of songs inspired by the poetry of Robert W. Service, titled Out of Service. Two additional poems from Robert Service complement “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” tells of the “spell of the Yukon” and the “gnawing hunger of lonely men for a home and all that it means.” By the end of the poem, ironic comedy comes into play: there is shooting; someone steals a cache of gold, and Lou turns out to be no lady at all. “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill” is a good comparison poem to “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” A similar plot line results in a more comical approach and an equally comical ending. “The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill” makes no pretense of being serious.
In these stanzas, Sam tells the speaker (“Cap”) about his fear of being buried in an icy grave and makes Cap promise to cremate his corpse when he dies. Service prepares the reader for Sam’s demise. First, Sam states that he will “cash in this trip,” adding, “I guess,” which suggests more finality than uncertainty. Sam seems depressed, moans, looks “ghastly pale,” and becomes incoherent (“rave[s] all day”). By nightfall, Sam is a frozen corpse.
The stunning visual beauty of the night sky (“the stars o’erhead were dancing heel and toe”) might be overlooked in these stanzas is. The word “dancing” should stand out as providing an under-current of joy and happiness to contrast with the bitter cold and the strangeness of Sam’s last request. It might offer an explanation of the spell of the land that holds men like Sam. Also, the dancing stars echo the Northern Lights of the opening stanza and foreshadow the flames of Sam’s “crematorium.”
These stanzas detail the speaker’s trials and tribulations with the frozen body of Sam McGee. Cap has lashed the frozen corpse to the sled as he continues on his journey across the frozen land. There is little description of the landscape, the weather, or anything else in this section unless it refers to the frozen body of Sam McGee. It appears that Cap makes the travels alone, with no other companions than the dogs. The speaker appears to be driven to the brink of madness. He is described as “horror-driven” in stanza 7; he curses “that load” in stanza 8; he talks of the “quiet clay” growing “heavy and heavier,” and that he “felt half mad.” He even refers to the corpse as a “hateful thing” at the end of stanza 9.
The mood of these stanzas is bleak. Long nights, lone firelight, and dogs howling indicate the gloom. The frozen corpse of Sam McGee “talks” to Cap and listens (“harkens”) when he sings to it. Additional elements, no breath in the land of death, tired dogs howling their woes, a low food supply, a bad trail, and the near-madness of Cap coupled with the grin of the frozen corpse all contribute to a dark picture of despair and misery.
Cap’s arrival at the shores of Lake Lebarge signals a shift in mood and action. This section begins by suggesting the oppressive bleakness of the previous nine stanzas will continue. But, the use of the verb “stuffed” in the last line of stanza 11 and the frenetic action of tearing out planks and lighting a fire begin the transition from the somber to the comic. The overplayed sudden cry of “Here … is my cre-ma-tor-eum” lightens the mood. When Cap stuffs Sam into the fire, the questioning of whether the poet’s motives are comic or tragic begins.
Before the poem’s climax, Service takes a brief pause, a two-stanza caesura. The activities of stanza 12 echo the despair of stanzas 6,7 and 8, with scowling heavens, howling winds, and icy cold. The dancing stars, however, replace the death images with one of delight and amusement, cleverly anticipating the poem’s unforgettable ending.
The unexpected sight of Sam McGee sitting in the middle of the fire presents a far more comic image than the scriptural portrayal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who come out of the furnance unscathed in the Book of Daniel. The smile that Sam wears is far warmer (pun intended) than the grin his frozen corpse displayed back in stanza 9. The admonition to close the door or the cold will get in contrasts with Sam’s earlier situation where he whimpered and slept beneath the snow. Sam’s earlier insistence for cremation is also transformed from a morbid request to a signal that nothing untoward will happen. The twist of the final line of stanza 14 elicits a nod of admiration to Service for evoking humor from a man “freezing to death.”
The cold and frightening images of the opening stanza have been completely transformed even though the words are repeated in the conclusion. The unnerving images of Lake Lebarge, and the secret tales of the Arctic have lost their power to chill. The bleak descriptions of death are replaced by the image of Sam McGee sitting in the middle of the fire, telling Cap to shut the door so as not to let in the cold.
Nature, and Survival in the Wilderness
The first nine stanzas of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” discuss at length the problem of survival in the Arctic wilderness. The deathly cold is but one element. Long distances between pockets of civilization and extreme loneliness also factor into how one survives in this environment. The mood of the first half of the poem points to failure, rather than success, in this particular endeavor. Sam is frozen solid, and Cap, the speaker, appears to be fighting a descent into madness. The arrival at the shores of Lake Lebarge, the building of the fire, and the poem’s final twist do not detract from the
Topics for Further Study
- Compile a list of what a modern day prospector might need for a six-month journey into the Yukon wilderness. Use a camping supplies catalog (such as L.L.Bean’s or Cabela’s) to determine weight as well as cost. Decide if the results would be worth the time and expense.
- Compose a poem that mimics the rhythm and rhyme of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” You might use a title such as “The Citation of Tommy B” or “The Vacation of Peggy Lee.” Remember to start by creating two lines of 17 syllables each. The fifth syllable, the tenth syllable, and the final syllable in each line should rhyme.
- To get pure gold, the ore must be mined, treated, and refined. Research the environmental impact of each of these processes.
seriousness of the fight for survival in the unforgiving Yukon.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is filled with images of death. The frozen corpse of Sam McGee is the most obvious. But, from the opening lines, Service talks of “tales / That would make your blood run cold” and includes at least one reference to death in succeeding stanzas. Sam says he’d “sooner live in hell” in stanza 2, and the speaker talks of the cold that stabs “like a driven nail” in stanza 3. In stanzas 4 and 5, Sam refers to “cash[ing] in” and makes his “last request.” The fear of the “icy grave” prompts him to exact the promise that Cap will “cremate [his] last remains.”
Cap finds Sam’s frozen corpse on the sled at the end of stanza 6. “There wasn’t a breath in that land of death” is the most chilling and direct reference, not only to the death of Sam, but the deaths of the many “sourdoughs” claimed by the Yukon cold. Sam’s body changes into a “load” and a “thing” that is “loathed” in stanza 8 and is “quiet clay” and a grinning, “hateful thing” by stanza 9.
The final act of “letting go” takes place over stanzas 11, 12, and 13. Cap prepares the “cre-mator-eum,” unceremoniously “stuff[s] in Sam McGee,” and removes himself from the place because he does not “like to hear him sizzle so.” Having “wrestled with fear” and “sick with dread,” Cap checks to see what has happened to the body of Sam. Although not directly stated, it appears Cap is preparing to retrieve Sam’s ashes as his final act of mourning. Instead, Service turns the tables with the image of Sam sitting in the middle of the fire, telling Cap to shut the door so as not to let in the cold. This element of redemption and salvation negates the power of death even in the hostile and unforgiving cold of the Arctic.
Sam cannot defeat death by himself. Without Cap’s help, Sam will die. Sam has to depend on Cap’s loyalty to follow through on his last request. It is clear from Cap’s thoughts that loyalty is what compels him to honor Sam’s wish to be cremated. Such beliefs as “A pal’s last need is a thing to heed” and “a promise made is a debt unpaid” drive Cap to comply with Sam’s dying request.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” is written in the form of a ballad. Ignoring the eight-line opening, the poem follows a regular pattern of four-line stanzas composed of two rhyming couplets. The regular, metronome-like rhythms make this poem (and others from by Robert Service) easy to memorize and recite, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s, “The Raven.” The reliance on internal rhyme drives the action of the ballad and enhances the performance aspect. The opening and closing lines follow the same metrical and rhyming patterns of the narrative stanzas, but Service reconfigures them into eight-line stanzas and puts them in italics to create a mood of mystery and suspense at the beginning, and comic irony at the end.
In 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike River. Because the location was so remote and getting to the strike was a difficult journey, it wasn’t until 1898 that the “gold rush” actually began in
Compare & Contrast
- Late 1890s: Prospectors flock to the Yukon looking for gold. Boom towns spring up all over the Klondike region. More than 20,000 people swarm into the town of Dawson alone.
Today: Just over 1300 people brave the wintry weather in Dawson.
- Late 1890s: Gripped by “gold fever,” people sell everything they have for a chance to strike it rich in the Yukon. A few are lucky. Many lose everything.
Late 1990s: Fascinated by the strongest economy in history and mesmerized by a rising stock market, many people go into debt to ride the stock market boom. Some cash out their retirement funds to become involved in “day-trading.” Many of these investors lose everything.
1896: The Olympic Games are revived through the efforts of Baron Pierre de Coupertin.
1998: The Olympic movement survives a major scandal involving bribes to the International Olympic Committee to influence the site selection for future Olympic Games. Salt Lake City, site of the 2002 Winter Games, comes under particular scrutiny.
earnest. Even with hardships brought on by some of the world’s most unforgiving weather, prospectors managed to extract small and large fortunes in gold from the region. The annual output of gold reached a peak of 22 million dollars in 1900. Production steadily declined after that, until it fell to 5.6 million dollars in 1906. By 1910 most of the population had left for Alaska and other regions.
The Klondike was the fourth and last major “gold rush” of the nineteenth century. Earlier strikes in California (1849), Australia (1851), and South Africa (1886) proved profitable for some who braved the weather and distances to lay claim to riches. Many more, however, left with dreams of gold, but returned with a broken spirit and empty pockets. Some never came home at all. The great gold rushes of the 1800s were an aspect of frontier movements on three continents. With the end of the gold rush period, mining was largely taken over by corporations and governments. The flow and uses of gold became much more controlled than in those frenzied “Wild West” days that glamorized the settling of once open territory.
By the time Service publishes “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and embarks on his new career as a writer of verse, Klondike fever has evaporated and the attention of the world has turned to other matters. The US and Spain have completed their war, but a Mexican Revolution is brewing, there is unrest in the Balkans, and Korea is annexed by Japan. Peary and Amundsen race toward the respective Poles. Henry Ford has started his assembly line system of manufacturing automobiles. But, the sun never sets on the British Empire and Edward VII reigns as King of England. Neither the Lusitania nor the Titantic has sunk yet, and the World has not yet begun “the war to end all wars.” Things will become more complicated in a few short years, but Service can entertain his fascination for the Yukon, including his famous two thousand mile solo canoe trip before relocating to France and becoming a war correspondent for the Toronto Star during World War I.
Praised in 1921 for their spontaneity and liveliness, Service’s rhymes have most often been lauded for their energy but criticized for their lack of “true” emotion. For many years serious criticism simply ignored Service’s work, or found it of limited interest. While Arthur Phelps recoiled from the “grotesque gruesomeness” of “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” he also claimed that the poem was
“At the word “sizzle,” in stanza 12, the thaw of the poem begins.”
“a folk tale of unquestioned natural vitality.” Phelps further distinguished between readers with literary pretensions (who dismissed Service’s sentimentality, metronomic rhythms, simplicity, and limited range) and those who used these same criteria to praise his verse for being memorable, recitable, and sympathetic to ordinary people. More recent critics have attempted to isolate the folk-poetry features of his work and to analyze his structural patterns. Edward Hirsch, for example, reads the Yukon ballads as a closed structure opposing Dionysian and Apollonian (body and mind) elements in human behavior. Service represented tensions between nature and culture, and he claimed to espouse nature before all. The continuing appeal of the poems about Sam McGee and Dan McGrew, however, rests not in any intellectual paradigm they employ but in the sly humor and metrical regularity that initially made them so readily adaptable to parlor performance.
Wiles teaches and writes in the shadow of Vermont’s Green Mountains. In this essay, he explores the idea of cold and the meaning of keeping promises.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” presents an interesting look into the life of prospectors. Extracting gold from the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in less than favorable weather conditions offered challenges to the “sourdoughs” who came to seek their fortunes, and provided material for writers like Robert W. Service and Jack London.
The term “moil” in the opening lines carries with it the meaning of digging under wet, dirty conditions. That is an unpleasant task in any climate, but set that action in the Yukon and the significance becomes more apparent. The very fact that days and nights are much different than they are in the lower 48 creates an atmosphere of disorientation. Couple that with a landscape covered in snow where many landmarks can be obliterated with a mere shift of the wind, not to mention a full-blown blizzard, and the search for gold becomes more a tale of survival than adventure.
There is no mention in this poem of Cap and Sam’s particular search for treasure. Instead, the poem focuses its attention on surviving the cold. For Cap, that means to keep moving. Throughout the poem, Cap is active, moving across the ice and snow. He appears to have no particular destination, but no particular place he can use for shelter or refuge either. When Cap does stop for the night, he wraps himself tight in his robes and buries himself in the snow. There is no specific mention, but the reader could assume at least one of the dogs would share the snow cave with Cap, their bodies providing the heat.
Whether Sam uses this method of keeping warm is not clear. He does “whimper,” though, and says that he’d “sooner live in hell” than in the Yukon. His chief complaint is that he is “chilled clean through to the bone.” It is interesting that Sam does not appear to be afraid of dying; he is fearful, however, of being cold for eternity. Thus, he requests to be cremated.
From the finding of Sam’s corpse in stanza 6 to Cap’s wandering just after stuffing Sam into the fire, the poem does not mention the cold. The previous six stanzas presented such a palpable presence of the cold that it remains with the reader even though there are no further references to it until stanza 12. There, the cold is brought in as a contrast to the hot sweat Cap is experiencing, an emotional and physical reaction to having built the “cre-ma-tor-uem” and putting the body of his friend in it.
At the word “sizzle,” in stanza 12, the thaw of the poem begins. The defrosting continues and increases when Cap mutters, “I’ll just take a peep inside / I guess he’s cooked, and it’s time I looked.” By the time Cap opens the door to reveal Sam sitting in the middle of the furnace, it should be no surprise to the reader. The path to warmth has been clearly marked. Sam’s remark that it’s the first time he has been warm should resonate with the reader as well. All the Arctic cold of the beginning of the poem has given way to humor and the warmth of Sam’s personality.
Some might say this poem is about salvation, but that argument would be difficult to make. Instead, it appears this poem deals more with the power of friendship and loyalty, and the meaning of making a promise. The promise on its face first seems distasteful, maybe even gruesome. But, As Cap says, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” It is that notion of following through, of honoring the commitment, that comes to the forefront. The poem shows in a humorous way the effect of keeping a promise.
Source: Bill Wiles, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Mowery holds a Ph.D. from Southern Illinois University in Rhetoric and Composition and American Literature. He has written numerous essays for the Gale Group. In the following, Mowery examines the poetic style and imagery found in the ballad as well as the poetic techniques used by Robert W. Service.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” reflects Robert W. Service’s knowledge of the Yukon territory, where he lived much of his early adult life. It was there that he was exposed to the rough and tumble world of the gold miners and other outdoorsmen of the Canadian northwest. “The only society I like,” he once said, “is that which is rough and tough—and the tougher the better. That’s where you get down to bedrock and meet human people.” Those kinds of images, experiences and people fill much of his poetic output. His ballads vibrate with the sounds and smells of the frontier saloons, with the piano playing in the background, the men and women talking and arguing, and the occasional gun fight erupting. His verses reflect his personal search for balance between the social life of the mining camps and the solitude of the north woods.
His most famous ballad, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” is a serious tale of intrigue and treachery ending with the deaths of McGrew and the stranger who did the shooting. This ballad, first published in 1907 in a collection called Songs of a Sourdough and later reissued with the title The Spell of the Yukon, was inspired by an actual event. Service had gone into a bank where he worked during the day looking for a quiet place to write. He did not tell the night watchman he was coming, and the startled watchman shot at Service, missing his head by inches.
Included in the Songs of a Sourdough collection was “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” a lighthearted ballad with an unexpected twist at the end. A ballad is a poetic form that tells a tale, usually in a very rhythmic fashion. These kinds of poems
“‘They understood him, and knew that [his] verse … would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle.’”
are not filled with deep symbolism; rather, they are straightforward explications of a story, serious or comedic.
“The Cremation of Sam McGee” opens with a stanza that establishes the tone of the work, giving it a mysterious air that the following tale will then unravel. The stanza is repeated at the close of the ballad, and thereby frames it. When it was published, Service instructed that this stanza be printed in italics for added emphasis, in much the same way that Rudyard Kipling used italics to set apart and add emphasis to stanzas in many of his poetic pieces. Service used this same publication practice in other verses, including “The Ballad of One-eyed Mike.” Such stanzas function like the choruses of ancient Greek dramas. While they are important to the telling of the story, they are not directly connected to it. Instead, they offer background or other information that helps the reader understand the literary work more completely. For Service, these mini-choruses set the tone and establish the mood of the verse they bracket.
The stories in Service’s ballads are very easy to follow. He was deliberately anti-intellectual and did not include in his verse obscure imagery and hidden meanings. But this fact does not make his poetry any the less important in the history of poetry, nor does it make other poetry any more important. It just makes their styles different. Service’s obituary in the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph of September 16, 1958, stated: “He was a people’s poet. To the people he was great. They understood him, and knew that any verse carrying the by-line of Robert W. Service would be a lilting thing, clear, clean and power-packed, beating out a story with a dramatic intensity that made the nerves tingle.”
What Do I Read Next?
- Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire” documents the darker side of what can happen to someone who doesn’t follow the advice of the more experienced “sourdough.” Also, London’s Call of the Wild offers another view on life mushing in the Yukon
- The story of a youth shipwrecked on an iceberg in the Arctic in 1757 with only a polar bear cub for a companion comes to life when Arthur Roth details seventeen-year-old Allan’s seemingly hopeless struggle for survival in The Iceberg Hermit.
An important aspect of Service’s style is the generous use of dialogue. In “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” many of the important parts of the story are carried along by the spoken words of its two characters, the unnamed narrator and Sam McGee. And at one important moment even McGee’s corpse seems to speak. In other verses, like “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” several speakers are active in telling the tale. The use of speakers in this way descends from the practice of Edgar Allan Poe, especially in his poem, The Raven. Poe uses both spoken word and the thoughts of his narrator to tell the story. The other speaker is, of course, the Raven. Service has also been strongly compared to Rudyard Kipling and is sometimes called “The Canadian Kipling.” Service adopted similar rhythmic and rhyming approaches as well as the occasional use of the italicized stanzas that are found in the poetry of Kipling. Both poets were very conscious of the language they used, often incorporating slang and jargon in their poetry.
Service’s verse (he did not call his ballads “poems”) is in the style and tradition of oral folk lore. In this tradition the poet tells the story using simple language in catchy meter and rhyme scheme. Despite the use of plain language, his characters and their stories mythologize the adventure and masculine vigor of life during the Klondike gold rush. The narrator has given his word to Sam and then endures severe hardships in order to keep his word. The characters achieve, in the hands of Service, a stature that belies their humble origins and surroundings. They become icons of the north woodsman who lived by a special code of honor and duty to keep one’s word.
Service’s verses are marked by their playful rhythms and unusual rhyme schemes. The rhyme pattern of the present verse is abcb defe and the meter is a lilting iambic pattern, with four and three beats in alternating lines. An iamb is a two-syllable foot, with an accent on the second syllable; a foot is a metrical unit consisting of two or three syllables. The interesting aspect here is the occasional inclusion of an anapest foot or two where the story line needed the extra syllables. An anapest foot is a three syllable foot with two unaccented and one accented syllables. The first line is a good example of this. “There are strange” (the anapest foot) “things done” (the iambic foot) “in the midnight sun” (a second set of an anapest foot followed by an iambic foot).
An obvious reflection of Service’s youth in the Yukon is much reliance on images of the north county, including the northern lights (the Aurora Borealis), sparkling stars, scowling heavens, and the sky seen through the smoke of a fire. But most of the feel of the north is revealed through the constant references to the cold—the cold that “stabbed like a driven nail,” the cold that froze their lashes shut, and the cold that froze the grinning, departed Sam McGee on the way to the Lake.
But in contrast to this biting cold, the poem also reflects on Sam’s home state, Tennessee, and the warmth that Sam remembers there. Also there is reference to that hottest of all places, Hell, where Sam said he would “sooner live” than in the cold northern parts of Canada. The last scenes, as the narrator builds a huge fire into which he puts Sam McGee’s frozen corpse, combine cold and hot: “It was icy cold, but the hot sweat rolled / down my cheeks.”
A tale of travel in the north woods would not be complete without mention of the dogs that pull the sleds. In this verse Service makes several references to the huskies, who lie in circles to keep themselves warm during the long, cold and windy nights. The dogs howling is reminiscent of wolves at night. Despite their fatigue, they are pushed onward to help the narrator fulfill the promise made to Sam to cremate his remains.
Service makes use of a pun on the word “grisly” (calling to mind the grizzly bear) as he describes the narrator’s wait in the snow while the fire burns up Sam’s remains. In the first and last stanzas, Service uses two words that now seem odd, “marge” and “moil,” that these words were commonly used at the beginning of the century but have since fallen out of use. They mean margin and toil, respectively.
When they arrive at “the marge of Lake Lebarge” the narrator finds an old, derelict steam boat, an image of death and ruin. He is pleased to see it and determines to use its furnace as the crematorium. Out on the derelict (dead) boat he builds a fire into which he puts Sam. When he can no longer refrain from avoiding the fire and is curious about how the cremation is progressing, he opens the door and sees Sam sitting up. Sam says, “Please close that door … it’s the first time I’ve been warm.” Out of cold and death now rise warmth and life!
On August 17, 1975, the Canadian Postal Service paid tribute to Robert Service with an eight cent stamp. The stamp depicts Sam McGee grinning out from an open fire on Lake Lebarge in the Yukon.
Source: Carl Mowery, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Kellner, Bruce, “Robert Service; Overview” in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Klinck, Carl F. and New, W. H., “Robert W(illiam) Service,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 92: Canadian Writers, 1890-1920. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by W. H. New, University of British Columbia. The Gale Group, 1990, pp. 342-348.
The Original Homepage of Robert W. Service, www.ude.net/service/service.html (March 20, 2000).
Mossman, Tam, The Best of Robert Service, ed., Running Press, 1990.
An interesting collection of Robert Service poems, including “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” and others. Vintage photographs from the Klondike days add a sense of realism. There is also a helpful glossary of the more exotic words and phrases Service uses in his poems.
Kellner, Bruce, “Robert Service; Overview” in Reference Guide to English Literature, edited by D.L. Kirkpatrick, St. James Press, 1991.
Provides an overview of Service’s work and leads to other critical sources.
Review of The Spell of the Yukon and other Verses, The Sewanee Review 1. Vol. XVII, No. 3, July, 1909, pp. 381-82.
An unnamed critic discusses Service’s style, stating that, although it shows considerable skill and vitality, the poetry deals “too rawly” with the harsh realities of life in the Yukon.